The Day the Klan Came to Town

The Day the Klan Came to Town

The hooded robes of the Ku Klux Klan are perhaps the most visible symbol of white supremacist terror in the United States. They are rivaled only by the same organization’s tradition of burning wooden crosses.

In the 1920s, the Klan were a scarily powerful organization, with chapters all over the country. They hated many, many groups: African Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Polish Americans, Catholics, Jews, and others. They were vicious, violent and had no qualms about killing, or being provocative. Once such time was when they marched on Carnegie, Pennsylvania, a mostly Catholic suburb of Pittsburgh in 1923.

That clash, which left at least one Klansman dead, is dramatized in The Day the Klan Came to Town, a graphic novel from PM Press written by Bill Campbell and drawn by Bizhan Khodabandeh. Befitting the publisher’s political inclinations, it is a very clearly political work, with a number of deliberate parallels to the present day.

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The Bridge over the River Kwai

The Bridge over the River Kwai

One of Alec Guinness’s greatest roles was as Colonel Nicholson in the 1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai. The World War II movie is rightly remembered as one of the greatest ever made. But few remember it was based on a novel: Pierre Boulle’s 1952 The Bridge over the River Kwai, translated in 1954 by Xan Fielding (who also translated Jean Lartéguy’s The Centurions, reviewed here).

Boulle served in the French armed forces in Indochina during World War II, and it seeps into the narrative. There’s a grottiness, a putridness, in the novel that could only come from first-hand experience.

If you’ve seen the film, you know the story: British soldiers captured by the Imperial Japanese Army after the fall of Malaya are made to work on the Burma Railway. You will recognize many characters, Saito and Nicholson in particular, as portrayed by the actors who are now immortal.

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What If Poland Stopped the Blitz?

I’ve always been one to root for the underdog, and underdogs don’t come much more quixotic than the Poles at the start of World War II. I’ve always thought about doing a scenario where the Poles survive the German Blitz. I finally decided to do one.

Usually I restrict myself to one change. I tried that with this scenario and couldn’t make it credible. It takes at least three changes to give the Poles a fighting chance. (None of those changes are particularly unlikely, but I’ll admit that I prefer one-change scenarios.)

  1. A Polish secret weapon. Bazooka-type anti-tank weapons are invented in Poland in early 1937, about six years early and secretly, but widely deployed by 1939.
  2. A brilliant Polish aircraft designer does not die in a plane crash in the mid-1930s.
  3. Due to some sort of bureaucratic snafu, the German army is unable to completely reequip itself with a new version of its Enigma coding machines by September 1939.

Ironically, Polish survival might lead to Germany being first with the atomic bomb, and possibly to German world dominance.

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Confessions of a Marrano Rocketeer

Confessions of a Marrano Rocketeer

Confessions of a Marrano Rocketeer fell into my lap through fortuitous chance. I learned of it through BookBub, an email service that gives subscribers book deals. That is how I came to Daniel Schenker’s debut novel — and what a debut it is!

Arthur Waldmann is a strange collection of attributes: ethnically Jewish, religiously Lutheran, living in Germany in the interwar years, obsessed with rocketry. Although a recent ancestor converted to Christianity (as many Jews in Germany did in the period), Athur grew up with the wisdom of the Zohar, the foundational text of Jewish mysticism. He is a man thoroughly at war with himself over who he is in light of his ancestors and his society, and how he trespasses against those in trying to pursue his passion.

From the very beginning of the book, the specter of Nazism hangs over Arthur’s life. He meets multiple people, with steadily increasing resources behind them, to build machines that will take humankind into space. This is harmless enough at first, but becomes very murky when he and his compatriots are contracted to build rockets for the German military and the country rearms in violation of the Versailles Treaty. Arthur begins to see the deal with the devil he has made, including the imposition of Nazi race law. He nevertheless soldiers on, having to see the nightmare unfurl as he enables it.

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The House with a Clock in Its Walls

The House with a Clock in Its Walls

I know I’m rather late to the part with a review of this most excellent diesel-steam movie, but it has only just appeared on Netflix (in Belgium); a fine time to remind the world that this fine film is indeed out there.

First of all, I have not yet read the book, so I couldn’t say how well it has translated to screen. But I will say that regardless of its written word origins, this film is everything I expect from a genre film. It’s adventurous, fun, there’s magic and mischief and monsters coupled with a setting that is both dieselpunk and steampunk. Set in the 1950s, it has that splendid midcentury feel with fashions of the era, oldtimer cars and diners.

Aside from that, it also has a magical house, a sentient chair, warlocks and witches and bad guys. It is wholesome, the kind of movie that makes you smile — and we could all do with more of that these days.

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Munich: The Edge of War Rewrites History

Munich: The Edge of War

Munich: The Edge of War is an enjoyable fiction; viewers must not confuse it for dramatization of Neville Chamberlain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia.

The movie is based on the novel by Robert Harris, who also wrote the dieselpunk classic Fatherland (review here). Jeremy Irons is predictably excellent. The costumes and sets are flawless. Scenes were shot in the actual Führerbau in Munich, where the 1938 conference took place.

The film adds a few action scenes to Harris’ plot to make it more thrilling, as well as two meaningful female characters to make the story less male-dominated.

Unfortunately, the one part of Harris’ novel the film downplays is a crucial one: the so-called Oster conspiracy, named after German counterespionage chief Hans Oster, to remove Hitler from power if he had attacked Czechoslovakia.

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Re-punking Dieselpunk

The “punk” genres of alternate history can claim both aesthetic and political stances. The “steam-“, “diesel-” and “atomic-” may suggest an historical look and feel; the suffix “punk” references that aesthetic’s historical stance toward power, that is, its political intentions.

All art movements are rooted in the culture and context of their time. When artists forget this, they become privileged, precious, ahistorical, appropriative and/or culturally adrift.

That is why, as a historian, I am not interested in or persuaded by an aesthetic which disavows the political. On the contrary, I would argue that any public-facing art — especially an art situated within the long twentieth century — is either inherently (if implicitly) political, or willfully blind or hypocritical.

I’m also a veteran of the late-1970s punk revolution. To me, “to punk” means to occupy the subaltern, to push back against the dominant, to hack the norms and counter-jam aesthetic presumptions, and — most importantly — to question or subvert the cultural politics and entitlements from which those presumptions emerge.

To “punk” an aesthetic therefore means to read the prefix “steam” or “diesel” or “atomic” against the grain, against the norm; to critique and/or subvert the dominant culture of those periods. This is what the original punk-rock did and what the original cyberpunk did: they turned the dominating aesthetic of 1970s glam-rock and 1950s utopian science fiction on its head.

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City of Thieves

City of Thieves

The Eastern Front of World War II is justly remembered as an exposition of the worst of humanity. It began with an undeclared invasion, was host to genocide and building-to-building combat in major cities, and ended with the largest mass rape in human history. One may be forgiven for thinking there was no decency in the “Bloodlands”, as historian Timothy Snyder called this stretch of Eastern Europe.

David Benioff shows there was in City of Thieves. It was inspired by tapes of the author’s grandfather, who lived through the awfulness. It is an odd thing for the Eastern Front: a coming-of-age novel with a child as its main character. There is hope, in a sense, if not for the country, then for people generally. It may be hard to swallow at first, given the madness of the surroundings, but surprisingly you come around to it.

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Dear Comrades!

Dear Comrades!

There comes a point in every ideological society when reality impinges upon the beliefs held so dearly by the local elite. As complex and totalizing ideologies try to be, some aspect of reality inevitably throws the whole structure of feeling into doubt; Utah got its first Jewish governor in such a moment.

The communist world was prone to these moments. The Soviet Union, among other Marxist-Leninist states, billed itself as a workers’ paradise, free of the parasitic relationship between employer and employee. But, as Lenin dictated, there was a vanguard party that assumed the qualities of the boss not long after the overthrow of the tsar. This led to the unthinkable in the “workers’ state”: strikes.

The 2020 Russian film Dear Comrades!, directed by Andrei Konchalovsky, tackles the violent breaking of a strike by the Soviet government in the industrial town of Novocherkassk, near Rostov, not far from the Black Sea and the Ukrainian border. It is a film about the massive hypocrisy undergirding the Soviet state, and how it constantly betrayed the people it purported to serve.

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